Peter Zvankin was born in Kherson, Ukraine (then in the Russian Empire), a front-line city in today’s Russo-Ukrainian War. When he grew up, Kherson was a port city on the Black Sea with a population of 60,000, almost 20,000 of whom were Jewish. Peter’s father died when he was three, leaving his wife and eleven children. The older siblings kept the family going economically, allowing Peter, the youngest, to attend a cheder, where both Hebrew and Russian were taught. Leaving school after having celebrated his bar mitzvah, Peter worked at odd jobs and taught himself how to play flute and clarinet so he could enter a Russian army band that performed publicly on national holidays and military reviews. Jewish soldiers in the early 20th century were treated decently, but Peter remained acutely aware of the Russian Empire’s pervasive antisemitism. As he told a Jewish Historical Society interviewer in 1972, he deserted in 1906 “because it’s Russia,” and slipped across the border to travel to Canada. Zvankin came to Winnipeg where he had relatives.
Like most Winnipeg Jews, Zvankin started off in North End boarding houses and took factory and lumberyard jobs. He joined a Zionist club and took part in amateur plays but took no part in musical life other than singing a song in a play. At some point, Zvankin saved enough money to open a business buying and selling textiles across the Prairie Provinces from a home office on Bannatyne Avenue. Later, he opened a large office on Main near Logan.
Zvankin’s marriage to Luba Marcovitch, a contralto, may have drawn him back to music. He wrote a tune for the English translation of Adon Olam to replace the traditional Hebrew tune that, he felt, did not fit. However, Luba contracted cancer and her lingering death in 1936 moved him to write a poem of agonized reflections that he later translated into an instrumental piece. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s conductor, Walter Kaufmann, encountered the piano composition, orchestrated it himself, and performed it in 1951 on a program for local composers. The work received a mediocre review in the Free Press, but the 1974 Free Press reviewer was more enthusiastic when Piero Gamba revived the piece. Kaufman also orchestrated Zvankin’s waltz, Cloudy Skies, and performed it with the CBC orchestra. CBC Toronto played it on Opportunity Knocks and Victor Feldbrill played Zvankin’s March with the WSO.
Zvankin wrote about 250 songs based on poems. Most were in Yiddish, and some had religious themes such as A Song to the Restoration ofBais Shaini (2nd Temple) with words by the Yiddish poet, Yehoash (Solomon Blumenfeld). Others had secular Jewish themes such as the Soviet poet, Isaac Feffer’s, Ich Bin A Yid, which he dedicated to the Yiddish elementary schools, and an anthem for the Y.M.H.A.
Zvankin was not shy about sending his compositions to well-known figures. He sent a leather-bound album trimmed with royal purple to Buckingham Palace with a recording of his setting of the memorial poem for King George VI, Toll the Bell Slow by Capt. Edgar J. Thomas. Before that, seeing the analogy between two fallen U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he set Walt Whitman’s poem, O, Captain! My Captain! to music and sent it to Eleanor Roosevelt. Harry Truman’s 1948 electoral victory inspired Zvankin to send a musical message to the president. He also sent a recording of a Hebrew prayer, Nishbana, to Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi with congratulations on turning 75.
Two of Zvankin’s most elaborate compositions involved both professional and amateur performers. In Memories of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Zvankin restaged the event in short with trumpet fanfares, organ music, and singing roles for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Queen Elizabeth (Sara Udow), plus a violin solo representing the Queen=s silent prayer. Zvankin celebrated John F. Kennedy’s inauguration with Winnipeg-born Metropolitan Opera baritone Morley Meredith, cellist Klara Belkin, organist Barry Anderson with a double quartet from the Westminster United Church, along with narrator Rabbi Norman Freedman of Maimonides College and Talmud Torah Synagogue. Walter Kaufman arranged the instrumental music and Dr. F.C. Neiermeier arranged the choral music. Parts were recorded in New York City, Chicago, and Winnipeg, and assembled in a studio in St. Boniface.
Zvankin did not neglect Canada. Shortly before Christmas 1946, he sent Prime Minister Mackenzie King a recording of A Nation’s Glory, a setting of a poem by William Clark Sandercock along with Say It with Music. With Newfoundland’s accession to Canada under discussion, Zvankin sent a recording by the Winnipeg Jewish Community Choir of Sir Cavendish Boyle’s poem, God Guard Thee, Newfoundland to Premier Joey Smallwood who promised to encourage radio stations to play it. However, Sir Hubert Parry’s musical setting remained the official anthem. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jews in Canada in 1959, Zvankin wrote music for a Yiddish version of O Canada by Zalmon Chaikin.
In addition to working in the textile trade and writing music, Zvankin wrote many letters to the newspapers and to politicians. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Israel but he spent far more on local issues such as traffic safety. He believed safety should be taught in school and all prospective drivers should earn a certificate from a driving school before applying for a license. Victims of the 1950 flood needed more support and volunteer sandbaggers should be fed hot meals, just as soldiers were. Zvankin urged that the Canadian Pacific Railway’s exemption from local taxes should be ended. He called for improvements to Old Age pensions, suggesting, as well, that wealthier recipients donate their receipts to the less well off. Several letters addressed problems in the textile business post-war adjustments. He wanted to raise Winnipeg’s national profile by replacing the historical city hall with another, equally impressive one; turning the French Renaissance style 1904 post office into a house of the arts and paying for Miss Winnipeg to attend a Miss Canada pageant in Toronto.
Peter Zvankin’s memberships reflect his broad interests. In addition to the composers’ association, he belonged to Rosh Pina Synagogue, B’nai Brith, the Jewish Historical Society, the Manitoba Historical Society, and the Canadian Technion Society.
Zvankin is buried in Shaarey Zedek Cemetery. He left his musical scores to the Jewish Historical Society (now the Jewish Heritage Centre) and his correspondence on public affairs to the Manitoba Archives.